Different views of African art over time

African works of art – curiosities, ethnological objects or aesthetic works?

The acquisition of objects from Africa by the West goes back to the Renaissance period. At that time, the European nations undertook trade expeditions to other countries in search of new products.


Illustration: Background Engraving from Ferrante Imperato,Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599), left top Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973) , left center  Suku Statues, center  Lwalwa Mask

Discourse on these objects has evolved, according to the context provided by Western ideology and science, from the fifteenth century to today. Artworks from African civilisations acquired by Europeans have thus been subject to three principal phases of appropriation and interpretation: (1) as curiosities (15th–18th centuries), later (2) as ethnographic objects (19th century) and finally (3) as works of art (from the 20th century).

Europeans in Africa

The historical context of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries produced the first manifestations of the ideologies that contributed to the creation of colonies on the African continent. The rise of the bourgeoisie within the economic system allowed them to impose their ideas on the development of societal attitudes, principally in regard to the value of the economic market and technological progress, which brought wealth. The discovery of other continents was therefore motivated by the search for new goods to trade.

The first European expeditions to the African continent were undeniably commercial in nature and go back to the fifteenth century. They took place first to the coasts and enabled the establishment of trading posts. The first maps of Africa, as it was known at the time, date from the end of this century. The Portuguese colonised the western shores of Africa in around 1444. At this time, Dinis Dias, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, reached the Senegal River, during his second journey to Africa.

Diogo Cão

[1] Diogo Cão (ca. 1452 – ca. 1486) – [2] Diogo Cão’ Congo River and the west coast of Africa


Some explorers recount their voyages, such as Luis del Mármol Carvajal in Descripción general de África, written in the late sixteenth century. Diogo Cão, another Portuguese explorer active in the fifteenth century, came into contact with the rulers of Congo during his first journey to Africa’s Atlantic coast in around 1482–1485. He made a second journey in 1485–1486, during which he reached Namibia and followed the Congo River up to Matadi (Congo-Kinshasa).

Olfret Dapper

[1] Olfret Dapper (1636 –  1689) – [2] Cover book’ “Description de l’afrique” – Full books online


Later, in 1668, Dutchman Olfert Dapper  produced a significant collection of works relating to the continent, which had now been explored for two centuries, in the form of Description of Africa.

However, the interior African territories were discovered very late and few travellers ventured there. In 1795, Mungo Park, a Scottish surgeon and traveller, was the first European to travel down the river Niger. Central Africa, populated by thick tropical forest, remained a mystery for a long time . Myths and legends about it continued to prevail even long after Europeans had explored its territories.

Henry Stanley

[1] Henry Morton Stanley (1881-1904) – [2] “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, an illustration from Stanley’s 1872 book How I Found Livingstone



Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904) describes in his book, How I found Livingstone, the journey that led to his meeting David Livingstone (1813–1873) in central Africa, at the request of the newspaper, New York Herald, which employed Stanley. David Livingstone had gone to search for the source of the Nile, but during his voyage stopped giving indications that he was alive. His last letter, dated 7th of July 1868, located him at Lake Bangweulu. It was near Lake Tanganyika that Stanley found Livingstone, ill and weak. It was only in 1871 that Stanley managed to find him.

The fashion for cabinets of curiosities

It was during the Renaissance that cabinets of curiosities appeared in Europe . This phenomenon is linked to the growth of travel, science and Humanism, but it was in the eighteenth century particularly that it became significantly more popular, both as a private collection and as a pedagogical tool for spreading knowledge . The collections contained within the cabinets followed four themes: articficialia, created by mankind; naturalia, taken from nature but in unusual forms; scientifica, scientific instruments; exotica, plants, animals and exotic objects from newly explored territories, such as Africa. Many owners of cabinets of curiosities were already drawing up inventories and catalogues of their contents . Cultural objects from Africa were not differentiated from exotic natural specimens. These were not object-focused collections.

The gathering of collections of African cultural objects began in earnest in the nineteenth century, at the same time as the establishment of ethnographic museums all over Europe and the United States. Two essential factors were at the origin of this development: the growth of anthropological studies, and colonisation.

Cabinet of curiosities

[1] Fold-out engraving from Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) – [2] “Musei Wormiani Historia”, Museum Wormianum.


Primitivism in art

The origins of the movement

Primitivism is a style of modern art in the domains of visual arts and literature that began in the nineteenth century and continued into the beginning of the twentieth century. It expressed a rejection of the bourgeois values represented by the growth of industrialisation, which was felt to be socially and culturally destructive. In regard to art itself, the traditional official canon was called into question and even rejected in favour of innate expressivity, which did not require academic training. Many artists thus turned to so-called ‘primitive’ societies, attracted by their ways of life, which were close to nature, and by their art. They drew on its formal concepts in order to interpret their own emotions. They also perceived in it authenticity and spontaneity, two values which they believed bourgeois materialist ways of life had suppressed. Artists familiarised themselves with the ‘primitive art’ in ethnographic museums and at tradesmen’s stalls. For the Western public, African objects thus changed progressively from ethnographic objects to works of art.

Edward B. Tylor

[1] Primitive culture’s cover  Full books online – [2] Edward B. Tylor


The concept of ‘primitivism’ as used to qualify African cultures (and more generally non-European cultures, other than those of the Orient) goes back to the nineteenth century and was particularly theorised by anthropologists such as Edward B. Tylor  in Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art and custom in 1871. The author analyses art and ideologies in order to illustrate the inferior nature of the peoples he has studied. This analysis posits a scale for measuring the cultural advancement of societies:

  • (1) the ‘savage’ living as a hunter-gatherer,
  • (2) the ‘barbarian’ living off the land and
  • (3) the ‘civilised man’ who uses writing.

The arts are defined in relation to technological development, not using machines. Thus, ‘primitive’ evokes ‘primary’, that which is not developed or refined, even childlike.

Some artists

Here is a brief list of artists who had affinities with African art and were inspired by it or collected it. Their advances constituted a determining factor not only in the new direction taken by European art at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also in how cultural objects originating in Africa were approached and viewed. It must be noted that the increase in private collectors of these objects also happened at this time, which was, so to speak, a founding moment. Let us note from now on that the value of an African artwork was increased by its pedigree: the more prestigious this was, the more value the artwork was given; age was not the only criterion. It was thus from this point that this concept became important. But we will see later on, in the chapter dedicated to African art and trading, the elements that contributed to adding value to the artworks.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

Guillaume Apollinaire (born Rome 1880, died Paris 1918) contributed to the creation of a more aesthetic vision of African artworks brought from the colonies, and notably exhibited his work in the ethnographic museum of the Trocadero in Paris. He wrote various articles on the subject. From 1909 to 1910, he also collected many African objects.

André Derain (1880-1954)

André Derain (1880–1954) was a painter, illustrator and sculptor. He collected African artworks, and was influenced by Picasso.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973 )

Pablo Picasso (born Spain 1881, died France 1973) was one of the leading Cubist artists in the early twentieth century. He was notably inspired by African statues and masks in his compositions, particularly in “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). In response to this period of inspiration from African art (1907–1909), he would later ironically claim, “Negro art? I don’t know it!”

[1] Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) – [3] André Derain (1880-1954) – [4,5,6,7] Pablo Picasso (1881-1973 )


André Breton (France 1896-1966)

André Breton (France 1896–1966) was a poet and theoretician in the surrealist movement. He collected many so-called ‘primitive’ artworks. He was a champion of so-called ‘primitive’ art (from Africa, Oceania and the Americas), and saw art as a way for peoples to be edified.

Michel Leiris (France 1901-1990)

Michel Leiris (France 1901–1990) was a surrealist writer who participated in the Dakar-Djibouti expedition from 1931 to 1933 with Marcel Griaule (1898–1956) as an ethnology student, carrying out secretarial and archiving work. On his return, he was appointed to the charge of the Department of Sub-saharan Africa at the Musée du Trocadero in Paris. He published in the journal Le Minotaure, in the form of a diary, L’Afrique fantôme, where he revealed the working conditions and the progress of the expedition in Africa. There, Michel Leiris denounced the practices of object collecting and the fragility of cultures encountered during his journey.


Influences on how African objects were perceived

Artists and collectors found inspiration and emotion in African art, without necessarily questioning themselves about cultural identity and the context in which the artworks they encountered had originated. Few of them sought to truly understand. What was essential to them was the emotion they produced and the projection of fantasies (e.g. fetishism). However, this gave rise to, among other things, a more critical view, if we can call it that, of the formal aspects of artworks and the context in which they were made.

From this point on, African objects were analysed and presented according to two opposing perceptions: one ethnological, the other aesthetic. The latter relates especially to sculpture, such as masks and statues. Thus, the study of African art focused to begin with on figure sculpture, according to the canon of European art appreciation. Let us recall that discourse on art appeared in the Renaissance and developed during the eighteenth century, and authors on the subject put forth principles and theories which became established as the foundation of study and observation in art history. Moreover, even if the aesthetic aspect of the objects was the main focus of this analysis, the conceptual background was also influenced by anthropological theories, involving the use of terms such as ‘tribe’, ‘culture’, ‘geographic territory’. African populations and the cultural objects they produced were therefore seen from an ahistorical angle, distanced from history, as if they had never evolved through time but were fixed within the framework of the tribe.

Let us note also that this aesthetic approach to African art was encouraged by, and itself encouraged, the trade in so-called ‘primitive’ objects that started in the year 1920. Traders and collectors were, from this point on, more and more numerous in Europe and the United States.

This growth of trade in so-called ‘primitive’ art reached its climax during the 1960s. Initiatives at museums of modern art in Europe and the United States during the 1950s and 1960s put African art centre stage. However, it must be noted that the first exhibition of African art presenting these objects as artworks took place in 1914 in Robert Coady’s Washington Square Gallery in the United States. Following this, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an exhibition called “African Negro Art” in 1935, during the Art Deco period.

Stieglitz’s Picasso and Braque show, 291 Gallery (Dec 1914–Jan 1915). Source: Stieglitz photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Source: Stieglitz photo from The Metropolitan Museum of Art


[1] Olfert Dapper never visited Africa. He carried out a synthesis of various documents from different disciplines (politics, geography, economy, moral studies, medicine, etc.). This document became a source for research into Africa.

[2] His voyage is recounted in his work, Travels in the interior districts of Africa: performed … in the years 1795, 1796, and 1797.

[3] It was at this time that furniture was sculpted from precious materials such as ebony and ivory, the model for which came from the shape of Moorish coffers. These cabinets were built by Flemish craftsmen and demand for them came from all over Europe. They contained multiple drawers and secret compartments, and were decorated with ancient and intricate designs. From this period, they functioned as places to store curios.

[4] Moreover, this growth is linked to the development of sales of private collections at auction. It was in the eighteenth century that the large auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s were established.

[5] The taste for cabinets of curiosities was made fashionable by curators, particularly at international antiquarian exhibitions, such as that held at Maastricht. Georg Laue, curator at Munich, remarked that “in the last five to seven years, more and more private individuals have become interested in them” (Azimi 2006, 24).

[6] Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) was an English anthropologist, a member of the evolutionist school, which based its observations and theories on the theses of Charles Darwin. It also contributed the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘animism’ as they tend to be used in anthropology (from Religion in primitive culture).

Editor in chief & Expert


Coryse Mwape Dolin
Art Historian, African Arts

Illustration Source

Portrait of Olfert Dapper (1636-1689) – 17th century — Source  Tacotichelaar – Author Unknown

Diogo Cão – Source Crossingtheoceansea.com

Stanley – Source Wikipedia

Edward B. Tylor – Source Wikipedia

Cabinet of curiosities  – source .wikipedia

Pablo Picasso – 1881 Málaga, Spain – 1973 Mougins, France – Source Homolaicus

Apolinaire  – Source poulencstiresias

André guerin – Source Wikipedia & 03varvara

André Breton – Source Adré breton.fr